By Louisa Campbell
The reality of child marriage pervades young girls’ lives across the globe. Child brides are more likely to be victims of domestic, sexual and physical violence as well as less likely to finish their education. This harsh reality is a manifestation of global trends of gender violence and is internationally recognised as a violation of human rights. Typically, high rates in child marriage emerge in humanitarian contexts as was documented in a 2017 Human Rights Council resolution.
Examples of humanitarian contexts can vary dramatically; notably, states experiencing armed conflict, suffering natural disasters and areas controlled by violent non state actors are all particularly prone to high child marriage rates. Take Yemen for example, where the number of girls married before the age of 18 sat at 50% before the outbreak of civil war, before subsequently rising to 65%. Additionally, the ‘Northern Triangle’ states of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras experience high numbers of girls who are recruited to become wives of gang members. Despite these distressing realities, it has been reported that in the last 15 years the numbers of child marriages globally has declined by 15%. Why has this concern only recently resurfaced amongst human rights discussions?
In addition to the aforementioned factors, the outbreak of global disease exacerbates rates of child marriage. During the Ebola outbreak schools in Western areas of Africa closed, facilitating a rise in child neglect, sexual abuse and adolescent pregnancies. In Sierra Leone, the numbers of underage pregnancies doubled after the outbreak. Therefore, it is unfortunately not particularly shocking that the Covid-19 pandemic has had disastrous effects on gender-based violence and in particular the number of child brides.
The pandemic has intensified some of the pre-existing main drivers of early marriage such as limited access to education, early pregnancies and poverty. Worldwide, it is estimated that school closures have interrupted the education of 1.6 billion children, causing often irreversible damage to the future prospects of young girls. The impact has been particularly concerning for girls who are living without sexual and reproductive education. Moreover, families facing food and employment insecurity feel they have no choice but to marry their daughters to older men in order to guarantee the most basic forms of stability. In a 2020 Global Girlhood Report, the non-profit Save the Children described the effects of Covid-19 as ‘irreversible setbacks and lost progress’. They estimated that the effects of the pandemic alone threatened to reverse decades of progress combatting global child marriage.
A UNFPA report summarised that the effects of Covid-19 will affect wider gender-based violence in two ways. Firstly, by reducing efforts aimed at preventing and protecting women from violence, and secondly by restricting their access to social services and care that provide life-saving sexual and reproductive health services .They estimated that the effects of the pandemic alone will cause a one-third reduction in progress towards ending gender based violence by 2030. For child marriage in particular, the conditions of the past year are expected to result in an additional 13 million child marriages between 2020 and 2030 that otherwise would not have occurred.
India is a particularly worrisome example. The UNFPA report showed that, despite the state accounting for a third of child marriages globally, ardent efforts were given to raising education and awareness before the pandemic. In the past five years efforts like such have reduced these shocking statistics. However, a harsh lockdown has plummeted many Indian families into poverty, the impact of which is parents believing that child marriage is the only way their daughters will receive food. The restrictions instigated also made travel for health care or community support and protection near impossible, putting the work of local initiatives on hold indefinitely.
Of course, whether large or small, no rates of child marriage are acceptable. Despite catalysing current statistics, hopefully Covid- 19 shining the spotlight on this global human rights violation may encourage serious change. The issue is not only global in scale but multifaceted in cause and thus solution. So far, some countries have implemented notable attempts to combat the intensification of this issue in the past year. Namely, in Cambodia the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has conducted child marriage prevention awareness campaigns. The Bangladesh National Human Rights Commission has distributed advisory letters supporting similar endeavours. In Africa, Kenya has witnessed the increased investigations into the violence against women and the Ethiopian government recently intervened to rescued 500 girls who were set to be married off.
Evidently, efforts are occurring to raise awareness of this issue and directly combat this human rights violation. However, in the long term, efforts need to be directed towards dismantling gender inequality and empowering women. For example, improving girls’ education opportunities, access to health and autonomy over reproductive rights are proven to have positive impacts on societal conditions as a whole.
Girls Not Brides, a global partnership to end child marriage has produced a series of recommendations for combatting this issue moving forward. They urge governments to pay attention to the causes and consequences of child marriage and offer ample support during times of crisis. The UN have been pushed to use Resolution 1352 on Women, Peace and Security to make girls a focal point of conflict prevention and resolution. If changes are implemented from governing bodies, the impact of regional programs may be more effective. Girls Not Brides has a partnership of more than 1500 organisations across 100 countries; they are a powerful force, but to truly eradicate this global issue, systemic change needs to occur first.
Together, a consolidated effort from various actors could still mitigate these unprecedented rates of child marriage. The effects of Covid-19 serve to demonstrate how fragile conditions of gender based violence are across the world as the pandemic has exacerbated harmful cultural norms. Undoubtedly, crisis will hit again, perhaps not in the form of a disease, but conflict, crime-ridden states and natural disasters can have similarly devastating effects. Therefore, to protect young girls around the world global organisations need to place more emphasis on this issue as a human rights violation, granting regional organisations greater powers to work on dismantling harmful gender norms from the ground up. Thus, when faced with times of uncertainty, girls will have increased education, freedom and rights to protection allowing them to better shelter themselves from a future characterised by violation.